Human Rights as a Sub-issue of the Gay Debate

My short summary of Alasdair John Milbank on human rights:

Prior to modernity, “rights” (Latin iura) were seen as the participation of persons in relationships of mutual, free associations in something objective. But with the advent of liberal political thought, rights become absolutely grounded in the subjective self in isolation from others. American political precedent is built upon these modern assumptions. Hence, “gay marriage” is perfectly rational in an American context which is built on the foundations of modern, liberal political thought.

I would add: if one is not prepared to challenge the foundations of American political theory (including the US Constitution), then one should not complain about gay civil “marriage.”

Two caveats here:

1. I do not mean to imply that the meaning of the word “marriage” (which is a sacrament of the Church) can be redefined. Indeed, I wonder why secular people even care about something called “marriage,” if not for financial reasons based in the tax code of the US. Thus, the church ought to disentangle itself from the state when it comes to marriage.

2. None of the above discussion applies to decisions within the Church with respect to issues around “homosexuality.”

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Re: “Prior to modernity, “rights” (Latin _iusa_) were seen as the participation of persons in relationships of mutual, free associations in something objective”; Wouldn’t that be the very grounds for the argument for the rights of gay marriages to be accepted: The “participation of persons in relationships of mutual, free associations in something objective” ?

Very good point, Matt. Thank you! I knew there was a better way to think about this issue.

One question about caveat #1 – If marriage is a sacrament of the church, what was marriage before the church existed, such as in ancient pagan cultures? Were lifelong, monogamous native americans not “married”?

It seems a little too sweeping for the church or even “the people of God” in whatever time/place to commandeer marriage as their own. Isn’t marriage best seen as common societal grace? Isn’t it wrapped up inextricably with shear biological and anatomical realities that all humanity shares, not just Christians?

The “objective” thing that people participate in for Milbank is the Good/Beautiful/True. The Good/Beautiful/True derives its content from a theurgic neo-platonism transformed by the Christian narrative. So, Milbank’s argument only serves as a legitimation of same sex marriage if one could demonstrate that same sex marriage is a proper (i.e. aesthetically pleasing) iteration of the Christian narrative, which is a questioned assertion.

Jeffrey, I think Milbank would say there is no single “sheer biological and anatomical reality” that all humanity shares, but rather that we literally exist as extensions of various stories about what it means to be human – so there are as many “realities” as there are narratives. While there may have been companionable sexual partnerships between men and women prior to Christendom, they existed through foreign cultural/linguistic codings present to us rather like dead languages. He would argue that to separate “universal norms” from particular narratives, as you suggest, is to be left with a universal norm that has no content – which is the major mistake of modern secular thought. So, from his perspective, such companionships as existed before Christendom are radically incommensurable with Christian marriage. In short – Christian marriage and the cultural and linguistic codings that create it are entirely the Church’s own.

Both concepts of “rights” are incomplete in my opinion. I personally hold the position, at this point in my thinking, that certain “rights” are inseparably linked with morality. Freedom of choice for example enables morality, or unfortunately, sometimes immorality. In the case of homosexuality I have often wondered a few things about the position of Christianity when it comes to the different types of gender issues. Biologically speaking almost every variation can and does occur. Like with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where a developing baby turns into a female (the default gender) even though the baby is genetically XY. Often the brain alone can develop into a feminized brain which is structurally female yet the body appears male. This is of course qualitatively different, although by most, judged the same as what some call standard homosexuality. So does God consider gender by genetics, brain, or body?

First off polygamy and arranged “marriages” were practiced by many native American tribes. But to your point I think there should be a difference between marriage as a sacrament of the church and what the state considers marriage. Case in point: common law marriages.

What would be the drastic consequences if the government stopped making a distinction between married and unmarried? I guess the lawyers would lose money.

[Re: So, Milbank’s argument only serves as a legitimation of same sex marriage if one could demonstrate that same sex marriage is a proper (i.e. aesthetically pleasing) iteration of the Christian narrative]. It seems to me, if the redemptive narrative is consummated in the Marriage supper of Christ and the Church (the only marriage/union in the Eschaton), then I think same-sex marriage would be a fitting trope of that consummation (i.e.,the marriage of Christ to the Church is “trans-sexual”), and thus Milbank’s argument would serve as a legitimation of same-sex marriage.

Good comments, friends.

Soon I will respond!

How could that marriage be considered trans sexual when the Church is the Bride of Christ, and referred to as feminine in Ephesians; and elsewhere in scripture God’s people are reffered to in the feminine. God feminized the Church.

I would argue that God “feminized” the church, not as a sexual reference but as a language device, a trope to illustrate the church’s role of submission, etc. to Christ; a figure of speech congruous to the common understanding of gender roles/relations of those times and because that language used for Christ and the Church was not in reference to sex/biology, it transcended those categories (hence, “trans-sexual”, as across, beyond, or going beyond differences of sex).

I think that is what is behind the profundity of Christ and the Church, that it transcends categories even as it defines God’s design. Paul calls it a mystery, that what is said about the man and the woman in Genesis, is really about Christ and the Church.

Anyway, of course, “feminizing” particular institutions, ideas, etc., was more common in language of those times and times going forward than they are now–with some exceptions in medieval texts that seem to use those distinctions interchangeably, i.e., Julien of Norwich’s comparison of Christ as mother in her “A Revelation of Love” text).

[…] Orthodoxy,theology / ecclesiology If anyone had any doubts about the validity of Radical Orthodoxy’s critique of the secular rhetoric of human rights let them read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this article in The Jerusalem Post by Chief Rabbi […]

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